The Rev. Dan Collison, worship arts pastor at Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, is proud of his church's pipe organ. Weighing in at a whopping 40 tons, it is thought to be the largest tracker organ -- one in which the connections are mechanical rather than electrical -- in North America.

"It clearly is the centerpiece of our traditional worship service," he said.

But he's equally proud of the music in his church's two other service styles, contemporary (led by rhythm and horn sections) and alternative (guitars).

"I love the organ," he said, "but the role of the organist has changed. Different styles of worship reach out to people with different tastes. Our contemporary service has gotten to be just as big as our traditional service. And our alternative service, while not as big as the other two, appeals to an important group of people, those 15 to 35."

Many churches are forgoing the classic pipe organ for a more contemporary sound driven by guitars, drums and electronic keyboards. The trend is largely suburban, where new churches are sprouting up. Most churches in core urban areas were built when traditional music mandated the presence of an organ.

Pipe organ prices are measured in the hundreds of thousands of dollars (and beyond). Many newly launched churches lack the financial wherewithal to buy an organ, while others rent space and don't have the option of installing one.

But it's more than money. Some churches big enough to afford the organs still aren't buying them, and other churches that already have them aren't using them nearly as much as they used to.

No exact figures exist on the number of churches with organs. Yearly sales figures for church organs are holding steady, according to the American Guild of Organists. But the number of churches is increasing quickly, with the Twin Cities area having gone from 2,200 to 3,000 in the past 10 years, meaning that the percentage of churches with organs is falling. All of which has led to articles on the Internet with titles like "Death of the Church Organist."

But don't rush out to the funeral just yet, said James Thomashower, executive director of the American Guild of Organists: "Sure, there are churches that, for whatever reason, don't want them," he said. "But there are still a lot of churches that do."

Music-related Internet bulletin boards reveal complaints about a shortage of talented, qualified organists (although, one wag noted, there's no shortage of mediocre organists). In 2000 there were approximately 83,000 U.S. college students pursuing degrees in various forms of musical performance, according to a New York Times report. Fewer than 600 of them were organists. Some observers estimate that the number has since dropped below 500.

There's a circular debate over the cause of the change. It goes something like this:

There's a shortage of trained organists because ...

Younger people are not pursuing it as a career because ...

They don't hear it played as much as their elders did because ...

There's a shortage of trained organists.

Return to Step 1 and repeat until the second coming.

Thomashower thinks that the main underlying issue is pay. Or, actually, the lack thereof.

"There's not a shortage of good organists, just a shortage of good jobs," he said. "Organists are highly trained, highly educated musicians playing a very complicated instrument, and they want to be paid accordingly. There are too many small jobs in small churches with small pay."

Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in south Minneapolis is betting $1 million -- the cost of a new pipe organ installed two years ago -- that the instrument is not about to fade out.

"The pendulum is starting to swing back the other way," said Beverly Claflin, Mount Olivet's music director. "Certainly a lot of churches have had a knee-jerk reaction to provide modern music. But I think that people are starting to look for that constant in their life that can come from music that has stood the test of time."

She has something that she likes to say before she starts to teach youngsters a classic hymn: "I tell them, 'Your grandparents sang this same hymn when they were young, and someday your grandchildren will sing it, too.'"

From Claflin's perspective, nothing can match the physical aspect of the pipe organ. Because it produces sound by moving massive amounts of air through miles of pipes -- there are more than 6,000 pipes on a big church organ -- you can actually "feel" the music, she said.

"When the organist hits some of those low bass notes, you can feel the seats rattle," she said. "Because of that, it's the only instrument that can support a large group of people [singing]."

For 56 years, Valley Community Presbyterian Church in Golden Valley got along just fine without a pipe organ, the Rev. Richard Buller said. And they'd still be getting along just fine. But when one was offered to them as a gift last year, they didn't have to think twice about accepting it.

"It's a wonderful addition to our church, and we're very blessed to have it," Buller said. "It's a beautiful instrument that looks as if it was meant to be there."

But the praise band continues to provide the music at one of the two Sunday services, and he doesn't see that changing. There doesn't have to be an either/or choice between the organ and the band, he said. In fact, the director of the praise band, Scott Newman, is a former church organist.

"There are many different ways to spread the word of God," Newman said. "It's the same message delivered with a different vehicle."

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392